a feminist foreword
illustrated with photos by the author’s son
Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
by Sara Maitland
Published November 2012 by Granta Books
This started well, with the above – wonderfully feminist – definition of the word ‘gossip’. However, it quickly turned into an interesting but very confused book.
On one hand it’s a social history of England’s woodlands, examining how people have lived in and used the forests over the last thousand years or so. It’s also a fascinating breakdown of Germanic fairytales, their history and development. The author suggests that fairytales and forests are inextricably linked – an argument I find quite convincing. However, the problem for me is that Maitland spends her time frolicking round English woods (and a couple of Scottish ones) when the forests of the fairytales are in central Europe. The really nice premise of this book is spoiled for me by this odd geographic choice. I wanted to learn about the fairytales in the Germanic woodlands – their origin and real-world context.
A major bugbear for me was the author’s choice to visit a few Scottish woodlands… while still discussing english history! As well as just being insulting, those later forays into Scottish trees felt rushed, half-hearted and poorly written in comparison to earlier chapters. An attempt to pad out the book and nothing more.
The author’s re-tellings of several fairytales are excellent. If she had chosen to write two books, one about english woodland history and another about fairytales, I’m sure they would have made two very good works. Squashed together they seem disjointed, confused and un-natural.
The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways is a more philosophical consideration of walking than previous books I’ve read by Macfarlane. I loved the lyrical prose and got so wrapped up in his descriptions I spent weeks reading this book, savouring the images. However, it lost me on two points:
- This book has a very similar feel to Roger Deakin’s Wildwood but, like that book, this seems overlong to me. Once the story has travelled to epic foreign paths it feels uncomfortable and somewhat dull to return to England for so many pages. Perhaps I’d feel different if England was my home?
- In the penultimate chapter he makes what I feel is a ridiculous assertion that someone who loves unconditionally actively asks to be hurt and betrayed. This is so out of step with the rest of the book and angered me to such an extent, I skipped that whole chapter and my overall view of the book was changed completely.
In summary, a mainly lovely book but sadly flawed.
A Walk in the Woods
Published 1998 by Black Swan (first published 1997)
I’ve just re-read this and found it to be even more wonderful the second time round.
At times genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny – funny in a way that makes you snort with laughter on public transport. It’s packed with background data and interesting anecdotes from the author’s own readings about the Appalachian Trail. At heart though this is the tale of two guys on a really, really long walk.
Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have never set foot on and never will by Judith Schalansky, 2010
original title: Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln: Fünfzig Inseln, auf denen ich nie war und niemals sein werde
This is a pretty, unusual, but ultimately bleak little book. The maps, at first glance so alluring, are actually rendered only in monochrome. Also many of these remote islands have unhappy or tragic tales attached to them. My other atlases are colourful, vibrant and uplifting. Every page feels like a journey. As this book’s subtitle hints, it aches with unfulfilled longing.
The complete list for this year…
- The crow road – Iain Banks, 1992 – the story bounces around through the personal timelines of various characters but it’s usually fairly easy to keep track. Oddly, the parts set in ‘the present’ seemed the most dated to me – 1990 was sooo long ago!
- The wild places – Robert Macfarlane, 2007 – a journey through the wildest places in the British archipelago – some of the best of which are in my own, dear Scotia
- Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932 – volume one in the trilogy A Scots Quair. I cried when I first read it as a teenager. I sobbed (on the train!) as I finished it this time. This is a beautiful and moving book full of wonderful language, providing a glimpse into a rural life that’s long gone
- Bedlam – Christopher Brookmyre, 2013 – Brookmyre forays into the realm of sci-fi. Jolly fine work!
- And the Land Lay Still – James Robertson, 2010 – a history of Scotland pretty much covering my mum’s lifetime. It somehow manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate
- As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee, 1969 – one of my favourite books – lyrical and inspiring
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain, 1876 – I read (and enjoyed) this years ago but did not then appreciate Twain’s glorious use of language: “…the old man laughed loud and joyously, shook up the details of his anatomy from head to foot, and ended by saying that such a laugh was money in a man’s pocket…” – isn’t that wonderful!
- Calum’s Road – Roger Hutchinson, 2008 – not the most well written of books (the writer was originally a journalist) but full of interesting historical details
- Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie, 2012 – a wonderful, lyrical book. The perfect thing to read while wandering the Highlands and Islands
- Reminiscences of a Voyage to Shetland, Orkney and Scotland in the summer of 1839 – Christian Ployen (translated by Catherine Spence), 1896 – I love this book. An insight into life in Scotland nearly 300 years ago
- Stone of Destiny – Ian Hamilton, 1954 – Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson andtheirganggoa-reeving down to Westminster to bring back oor wee magic stane. A right rollicking read
my book of the year
- Whisky Galore – Compton Mackenzie, 1951 – Tha e uabhasach math, nach eil?
- Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin, 2013 – Rebus is back! (thank the gods of fiction). Mr Rankin, your Malcolm Fox character is far better suited to the role of semi-villain than hero. We love Rebus – deal with it
- Flesh Wounds – Chris Brookmyre, 2013 – the third Jasmine Sharp Investigations novel. Not sure if this is intended as the last in a trilogy but it has that feel – many loose ends are nicely tidied away. Yay Jasmine!
- Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886 – another of my very favourite books, one I read every year or so. The perfect accompaniment to one of my own wee Highland adventures
- Poor Things – Alasdair Gray, 1992 – always one to judge a book by it’s cover, I’ve avoided this book because I didn’t like the artwork. However, I was very wrong to do so. This is a glorious story – reminiscent of Frankenstein and the early, supernatural stories of Conan Doyle – it is also funny and feisty and a perfect book to read in the run-up to the Independence Referendum
- Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish – Lesley Riddoch, 2013 – a wonderful, glorious and feisty book. Inspiring and fabulous – another must read during 2014, I’d say
- Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett, 2013 – sadly dull for a Discworld novel